What would be found in a time capsule from 1976?
A Jimmy Carter campaign pin? A map of the then brand new Metro system? An Indiana Pacers ABA jersey?
Whatever, I don’t know, but it’s fair to assume Death’s first record, …For the Whole World To See, would not have a spot, likely edged out by two copies of Physical Graffiti.
But now, 39 years later, Detroit’s Death is enjoying the success it never achieved.
With a brand new record out — the aptly titled N.E.W. — Death is now looking toward the future for the first time since their first break up in 1977. Original members and brothers Bobby and Dennis Hackney have brought in Bobbie Duncan of Rough Francis—all of whom were in Vermont reggae act Lambsbread—to replace the late David Hackney, arguably the true visionary of the group, who passed in 2000.
We got to talk the protopunk band in advance of a brief East Coast tour.
I guess the first place to start would be: Welcome back. Death hasn’t put out new music in a long time. How does it feel to be back on the road, playing new music?
Bobby Hackney: Yeah, since 2008/2009 is when the Death discovery really came. We’ve been on the road since 2009; our very first show we played was down at Irving Plaza in New York City for Joey Ramone’s benefit for lymphoma research. Mickey Lee, Joey’s brother, invited us there for that, and it was a great honor for us. So we’ve been on the road quite a bit. We’ve been around.
It feels real good to be playing Death music. It’s like a first for us, really. We never got the chance to do the things that Death is doing today. It feels pretty good.
How is the new Death music and lineup faithful to the original Death?
Bobby Duncan: It’s been reanimated.
BH: Yeah, we stayed true. What you hear is a continuation of what Death would have been doing had we continued on in the 70s. The album has four songs that were contributed by Bobby; the other six songs are from the Death archives, written by myself and with David Hackney.
Those songs were re-recorded for N.E.W.?
BH: Re-recorded is a bit of an ambitious term for what happened there. These songs were written, and barely demoed, so we dusted them off and played them new in the studio, and give them the sound they were meant to have. We stayed true to what Death intended for each one of those songs.
How did your years off, and your time in the reggae world, how have your experiences contributed to the new sound of Death?
DH: When we were playing reggae, we just had our head in the reggae thing. The only way those experiences have contributed to what Death N.E.W. is the fact that from the time we started playing, we never really stopped. It wasn’t like we had to restart the whole thing again, we just had to recourse ourselves from reggae back to rock and roll.
And you’re still living in Vermont?
BH: Yeah, but David moved back to Detroit. He wanted us to move back, but we had things going on, and we really liked Vermont, and we’re happy to raise our children here. David even loved it here, but it was just the rejection of the music. He was convinced we could go back to Detroit and kind of re-kickstart everything, and we wanted him to stay here with us. It was a standoff. Months went by, turned into a couple of years, and Dennis and I were still playing bass and drums.
We couldn’t find a guitar player that lived up to David, and we didn’t want to. It got to a point where we got used to the new sound. And then through our association with the University of Vermont college radio, we got hooked up with some promoters who were bringing reggae music to town, and we got a chance to work a couple of shows. It just dawned on us, when we saw the college kids going wild, especially for the bass and drums section. It was a good choice, because Lambsbread became one of the top reggae bands in New England. We enjoyed some good regional success.
I imagine that your experience in the music industry now is very different from the way it was in the 70s. Now people are extremely receptive and supportive of Death N.E.W., as opposed to For the Whole World to See. How are you navigating the music industry today?
BH: Very carefully, like everybody else. The thing about Death is that it’s a unique story, so it’s really the story that drives the band. And that album that we recorded at United Sound will always stand as the legendary album, at least according to music industry historians. We accept that, and we appreciate it, but we’re just doing the best we can.
Our resolve is what David’s resolve was when we started. The album was called For the Whole World to See, but that was also our touring concept. That’s how we talked about it back then: If we get to play everywhere in the world once, then it’s for the whole world to see. There are still a lot of places we haven’t been, but Death truly is on a worldwide tour. Our quest is to play everywhere in the world, especially places that want Death.
I’m sure it feels great to achieve your vision, although it took a long time to happen.
DH: Yeah, I kind of compare it to the Israelites, wandering around in the desert for 40 years.
I think the story really does resonate with people, and race relations being what they are in the United States right now, I think your story and the Death movement is something a lot of people can get behind. Your band seems to have caught fire indirectly within the same environment. Maybe it took people that many years to finally embrace who you are and what you’re doing. I wonder what contributed to that length of time, and then the massive sea change.
BH: We pondered that ourselves.
DH: When we first got this name, it was very precarious for the time. A lot of people couldn’t even get to the concept of what the band was about, they didn’t even want to say the name. Now things are different, you got death metal and death this and death that.
It took a whole generation of people to come and go just because of the name. The name and the speed of the music got us in a lot of trouble when we tried to market this to the world.
BH: You speak of race relations, we never really thought about that in the 70s. We were just having fun, playing rock and roll. But rock and roll music goes back through that history: Bob Dylan’s first major hit “Blowin’ in the Wind” was adopted by the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, and George Harrison doing the concert for Bangladesh opened the door for rock musicians to interact and help people of other cultures. Rock and roll music has always been on the forefront of social, civil and human rights. We’re glad that after all this time – even though we were just young kids having fun – that the bridge had come through even to this time. If this music can bring any two people together and help with race relations of this country, then so be it. We’re all for it
Are the new songs taking on similar lyric and activist themes as the original record?
BH: The six songs from the archives are in the same vein, but I’ll let Bobby elaborate on the new stuff that he contributed. The inspiration is real interesting, this all started November 11, 2010.
BD: Yeah, we had it in mind to go into the studio, but we just needed something to push us in, something new. We did this show in Chicago, at The Empty Bottle, and I just got inspired by the energy of the crowd. The audience was so receptive. I wanted to capture that energy.
That’s my favorite venue in the country.
BD: Yeah, man, great venue. So I went home, and put together a song, took it to the fellas. We worked on it a bit, and then we recorded it. I named that track at that time 11/19/10, when we did the sketch in the studio. After Bob and I finished with the lyrics, we agreed upon the name “Relief”, which became the first song on the new record. Ultimately, we all fell into it easily, and Bob and Dennis are great songwriters. David’s songwriting is definitely an inspiration of mine, so I’m happy to have the chance to offer my two cents.
It’s a great opportunity. Would you say that your time learning and playing the older songs helped you write in the same style?
BD: Definitely. It’s like anything else, you can pick up the feel of something. Pick up the movement, that’s what I call it. These songs have a real movement to them, so I just caught on to that, and elaborated.
Are you pleased with the response to the new music?
BD: Very much so. Everybody seems to be on the same level, and has been very supportive of the new venture.
I imagine that you have to enter into a lot more self-promotion these days, as opposed to the 70s. Does the need to be self-promotional affect how you see the band? Are you cool with having to tout your music loudly these days?
DH: Well, man, in the 70s, we were all about self-promoting, because nobody else would help us.
BH: That’s what put us on this incredible journey, like the Israelites. If we had not put out those 500 records in 1976, then the whole story would be different. Self-promotion is what put us on the path to Death being discovered in this time.
Another one of David’s predictions: In our quest to get our music promoted, we went to Cincinnati one weekend. There were a lot of little labels and in-house businesses, that term wasn’t used then, but we visited a lot of people who did recording, promotion, distribution, everything, all from one office. I remember David saying that was the future of the industry. That everything will be done from someone’s house, and bands will be doing their own promotion. He saw that.
You think David would be proud to hear Death now?
All: He would love it.
Band photos courtesy of Deathfromdetroit.com.